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Nico Mannion, Josh Green may be most important freshmen in Arizona basketball history

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Photos by USA Today

The Arizona Wildcats have never been short on talented players, particularly freshmen. Lute Olson started it, and Sean Miller has continued the trend of almost always having an impact freshman who plays a key role in the team’s chances for success.

Miller has been particularly adept at landing top-tier talent, with 16 five-star signees since he came to Arizona a decade ago. That includes eventual No. 1 NBA Draft pick Deandre Ayton as well as lottery picks Aaron Gordon and Stanley Johnson.

This year’s crop of freshmen is as good as ever, with Arizona landing the No. 6 recruiting class in the country according to 247Sports.

But there’s something different about this group. In particularly, something unique about two members of that class: guards Nico Mannion and Josh Green.

While far from the highest-rated freshmen in school history—247Sports has Mannion as the seventh-best since 2000, while Green is ranked 10th—it’s fair to say that no newcomers have had more pressure on them before ever playing a game in an Arizona uniform than this duo.

In other words, they’re being billed as the saviors of Wildcat basketball. Which is both completely understandably and horribly unfair.

“Nico and Josh are really talented kids and players, but they’re freshmen,” Miller said following Friday’s exhibition game against Chico State. “All of us, especially myself, we have to be patient with those guys and teach them and make sure that they’re growing and learning because they’re going to keep getting better. They’re hard workers and they’re very talented players, but they just showed up here. It’s never quite as easy as you just snap your fingers and, man, you’re good.”

That’s easier said than done.

It feels like Mannion has been deemed Arizona’s knight in shining gradient shoulders ever since he committed in September 2018. He signed that November, right as UA was about to begin what ended up being its worst season since Miller’s first in 2009-10, yet the knowledge that Nico was waiting in the wings helped ease the pain of that campaign.

So did the impending arrival of Green, who committed last October to give Arizona its most potent 1-2 backcourt duo since T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson in 2013-14. On paper, at least, and via reputation.

Mannion and Green played together on the AAU circuit, both members of the West Coast Elite travel team despite one growing up in Phoenix and the other in Australia before moving to the U.S. to attend IMG Academy in Florida. That four years of experience alongside each other has created a symbiotic relationship, they said.

“We’ve been playing on the court together so long we have chemistry together,” Mannion said. “Half the time, if I see Josh starting to make a move I know what he’s going to do even before he does it because I’ve seen it so many times.

Added Green: “We know where we’re going to be on the court. I can’t wait to see it all come together.”

Despite their close relationship, being a package deal at the collegiate level was never something they considered. Not with any real seriousness.

“We sat down one time and was just like, listen, at the end of the day we’re just going to choose the best school for both of us,” Green said. “For Nico, obviously, Arizona was the best for him. It wasn’t planned. Coach Miller, his system, it works out best for how he plays.”

But Mannion felt the pairing was meant to be when Green narrowed down his choice to Arizona and North Carolina. That’s when he began to apply a little pressure on his longtime friend and teammate.

“We did (talk about it), most of the time it was jokingly,” he said. “I don’t think we ever really took it that serious. After I committed I kind of started talking to him about it, like, hey, come play with me. We’ve played well together for three years, let’s do it again next year. I think when he cut it down to two ... I knew the team had a pretty good shot. I started giving it a little more attention and calling him, talking to him about it. I’m really glad he’s here.”

So is Miller, about both of them. Though neither he or anyone associated with the school would ever admit it, landing both Mannion and Green had to have contributed to Arizona’s leadership so steadfastly standing behind the coach amid all of the FBI and NCAA investigation turmoil.

Whether any of the allegations about Miller and the program are true, more often than not a school would have tried to part ways with their coach in an effort to distance itself from any potential sanctions.

That hasn’t been the case with Arizona, and knowing Mannion and Green were on their way no doubt factored into this.

Which makes how they fare—not just individually, but in terms of wins and losses, particularly in March—even more important. Hence the ‘savior’ designation.

Both Mannion and Green have been projected as first-round picks in the 2020 NBA Draft by numerous media outlets, most recently Sports Illustrated. While each player considers that flattering, neither is focusing on what happens beyond this season.

“I just think it’s way too early for all that stuff,” Mannion said. “I kind of just try not to pay attention to it. I haven’t played my first college game.”

He has played an exhibition, and it wasn’t the kind of eye-popping performance someone with such hype would be expected to have. Mannion had 10 points, five rebounds and six assists but also five turnovers, and he was just 3 of 11 from the field including 1 for 6 from 3-point range.

Green’s debut was equally uneven, as his 11 points in 27 minutes came without a make from behind the arc and also featured four fouls and three turnovers.

“It’s going to take them a little bit of time to learn,” Miller said. “They had their really good moments (Friday) and they probably had a few freshmen moments, which is to be expected.”

In late September, Miller referred to Mannion and Green each as pieces to a puzzle, an attempt to downplay their individual importance. But when the 2019-20 season begins for real on Tuesday against NAU, and over the next few months, what those two do will be scrutinized more than anything else related to Arizona.